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[830] The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain

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“How many things do we feel obliged to do for the sake of it, or for appearances, or because we are trained to do them, but which weigh us down and don’t in fact achieve anything?”

Set in modern-day Paris, The Red Notebook is the story of a bookseller who finds a handbag in the street one day, takes it home with him, empties out its plethora of contents and decides to look for the woman who owns it. Unbeknownst to him, the handbag belongs to this woman had been mugged the night before.

The book is a gem of a novella. It uses a found object as the pivot on which to turn a tale of happenstance. Laurent Letellier is a banker-turned-bookseller in his mid-forties. Given the handbag provides no information on owner’s contact and identity, he combs through the personal effects and reads through the journal for clues. Ensued is a whimsical experience of nostalgia for something that hasn’t happened or will happen–he gets to know her and her preferences and intimate details through her words but not knowing her in person.

Who is she? What does she do for a living? Why so many keepsakes in a small handbag? The aggregation between owner and finder is lightly spun, but eventually joined by the inventory of objects that bodes well for their kinship. This novella observes the totemic power of belongings. That Laure fought her mugger and grieved the loss of her bag speaks for the value of it—a piece of life that is irreplaceable. Laurain really captures the potent combination of sentiment and association attached to the most unlikely things.

A tale of serrendipity.

159 pp. Gallic Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[828] The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George

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“Memories are like wolves. You can’t lock them away and hope they leave you leave.” (Ch.1, 5)

The Little Paris Bookshop has a very promising start: a bookshop on a barge called the Literary Apothecary on the bank of Seine in Paris, a bookseller who not only loves books but has a nearly mystical ability to assess the deepest feelings and wounds of his customers, and cats that nudge behind bookshelves and keep his company.

For twenty years Jean Perdu is still heartbroken over his lost love, and the room Manon used to live in has been barred by a giant bookcase. But when Perdu reads the letter from her, sealed and stowed away for twenty-one years, everything changes for him. He decides to set sail for the town in southern France where Manon was from, along with a best-selling author who is stuck in a writer’s block. Together they embark on a trip to small quaint towns where they use books as currency to exchange for food and services.

The journey is an emotional one poised on self-reflection. Perdu experiences a self-awakening that frees himself from the compulsion to only make the right moves. There’s a lot of soul searching and conversation in the head, as he wrestles the thoughts that all these years he has endured loneliness because he did not want to trust love again.

All of us preserve time. We preserve the old versions of the people who have left us. And under our skin, under the layers of wrinkles and experience and laughter, we, too, are old versions of ourselves. (Ch.19, 137)

But ironically, as much as he prescribes books to his wounded customers, he is the one who is sorely in need of nourishment and healing; and he is not cured by books, but by friendship, time, and love. Hurt feelings have their time distance and they have to run the course.

I appreciate the concept behind this novel, which really should be a short story. Before halfway it has become flat and has exhausted the point it’s making. The book barge Nd the book trade peter out early, and I do not expect the book to be a romance in the most literal sense.

408 pp. Broadway Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“Candide” Revisited

I grabbed Candide from an impulse before heading out the door. I ended up reading it all in one sitting at lunch.

Candide is a masterpiece of satirical and comical literature. Heedless of the connotations and historical references, the third time around is pure enjoyment and absorption of Voltaire’s philosophy. It’s a fast-paced adventure story and travelogue, an unsentimental love story, a fantasy replete with history. Voltaire has a knack for creating a staccato rhythm in narration, which often achieves comic effect.

Voltaire’s early optimism underwent a profound change under the impact of events in his personal life as well as in reaction to the natural and man-made catastrophes that made him keenly aware of human suffering and misery, not to mention the dangers that threaten existence, let alone one’s well-being and chances of achieving happiness.

Many a times to read is to become enlightened the history of the period in which the writer lived. Voltaire’s own disappointments—the unexpected loss of Madame du Chatelet, the unrelenting hostility of the court of Louis XV—were compounded by his intense and immediate empathy; he spontaneously identified with all victims of calamities, war, injustice, prejudice, and intolerance—all contribute to the fictional events in Candide.

Candide is supremely wrought tragicomedy. It induces me to laugh at and at the same time reflect upon the most dreadful events that befall humankind. It appeals to us today because, nearly 250 years after its publication, it has lost none of its relevance and satirical sting. The book unleashes fierce attack against the evils of religious fanaticism (in present day religious intolerance and terrorism), war (war), colonialism (border dispute), slavery (trampling on human rights), and mass atrocities. But above all, to gives a glimpse of hope, it proclaims the human capacity to survive the worse of these calamities and endure.

Thoughts on French

Many people traveling in France would share the frustrating experience that they are ignored speaking English. Although English has borrowed and adopted French words, the French language has not welcomed the invasion of English words. They have been more resistant than most. The French have had a low against the encroachment of foreign words since as early as 1911, but this was considerably bolstered by the setting up in 1975 the Maintenance of the Purity of the French Language law, which introduced fines for using illegal anglicisms. You may safely conclude that the French take their language very seriously indeed.

No you won’t be fined for speaking English, but you won’t go very far either. In some of the old Paris dining establishments, especially the ones removed from the tourists’ tread, a hamburger is a steak haché (not le burger). A steak haché is made from minced beef, which is formed into patties ready for cooking and originates from France. Filet mignon generally refers to pork rather than beef. Some menus might provide a one-line English descriptions but don’t expect it to be the convention.

Estimates of the number of anglicisms in French have been estimated to be 2-3 percent or less. So it is altogether possible that the French are making a great deal out of very little. I suppose what really ranckles the French is not that they are borrowing so many words from the rest of the world but that the rest of the world is no longer borrowing so many from them. From the outset the government conceded defeat on a number of words that were too well established to drive out: gadget, holdup, weekend, blue jeans, self-service, and many others. They do recognize the global importance of English but prefer to speak French. But it’s a different case when it comes to relaxing at home in the evening.

But the English-speaking world can be better at looking after the borrowed words than the French were. Quite a number of words that English has absorbed no longer exist in France (at least not widely spoken). The French do not use nom de plume, double entendre, panache, bon viveur, or R.S.V.P. for répondez s’il vous plaît. Instead they write prière de répondre.

Rereading “Candide”

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Candide is considered Voltaire’s magnum opus and is often listed as part of the Western canon; it is arguably taught more than any other work of French literature. Experience had it that the trimmer the book, the more penetrative its meaning. The novella was published in 1759, a period in Europe when all the sovereign princes and republics carried on schemes of aggrandizement against each other.

It begins with a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life in an Edenic paradise and being indoctrinated with Leibnizian optimism (or simply “optimism”) by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes the abrupt cessation of this lifestyle, followed by Candide’s slow, painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world.

The 18th century saw the appearance of a literature profoundly skeptical and critical of the courts and politics of the time. Politics was so petty during that age of multifarious sovereign states that the history became more and more manifestly gossip, more and more unmeaning and wearisome to a modern intelligence. In such a book as Voltaire’s Candide one has the expression of an infinite weariness with the planless confusion of the European world.

[761] Seven Ages of Paris – Alistair Horne

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“A great city is…a work of art. It is a collective and complex art, it is true, but this makes it an even higher form of art.” -Guillaume Chastenet

Before I headed to Paris this summer for an in-depth visit, I wanted to peruse its history, Horne’s book just serves the purpose. He has written extensively about France’s history, especially its wars, but Seven Ages of Paris is a story of Paris. Keeping primarily within the confine of political and social history, he covers nine centuries, from the battle of Bouvines in 1284 to the barricades of 1968. Like many cities, Paris has its up and down. It has evolved over time and escaped unscathed from wars. Paris is the symbol of chic and style, and Horne makes plain that while Paris may be many things, it is never boring.

Unlike How Paris Became Paris, which I read also in preparation for the trip, Horne’s is more than an analysis of urban design, of architectural shifts, of the court’s removal from the Louvre to Versailles, and of Haussmann’s massive re-design of the city at the expenses of demolition. To this monumental task of describing what he calls the seven ages that encompass a thousand years, Horne underscores the tenacity of the medieval French kings as they transformed a small, vulnerable town into the capital of a growing centralizing state.

The focus of each age is the king, the villains and the heroes. Philippe Auguste (1180-1222) is recognized as the first true adorer and lover of Paris. The Capetian king who at the battle of Bouvines saw off the Plantaganet English established the security of France by ensuring a French lineage of kings. The equally adroit Henri IV, who solved the religious quarrels (War of Religions) of the 16th century by a cynical conversion to Catholicism, is credited with both intelligence and a grand vision of how to embellish and to develop Paris, an ambition whose most eloquent testament were Pont Neuf and the Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges). Sully and Richelieu, both ministers of different ages, come across favorably for their achievement in building Paris and enhancing the purity of French language, respectively.

Horne’s assessment of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who spent most of his time at Versailles, is mixed. He rid of redundant government administrations and achieved solidarity of power. His court removal was a long-term disaster for the monarchy as it established a distance both geographical and political between itself and the city of Paris. Horne’s distaste for the French Revolution is such that he skips it, even though the Paris of those turbulent, tragic years deserves to be discussed. He does acknowledge Paris always rebounces with greater depth in humanity—in the form of arts, literature, and theater. Horne emphasizes the city’s growth under the two Napoleons, contrasting its glitter with the misery of the underclass. The Commune year and Great War also receive special attention. The critical victory at the battle of Marne in 1914, and the humiliation of occupied Paris in World War Two also inspire excellent pages. This book is very dense and thorough in research. It is a work of inspiration and love for Paris.

458 pp. Vintage Books/Random House. Trade Paperback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Shakespeare & Company in Paris

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Although Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore is no longer on Rue de l’Odeon at its original location from the 1920s, the bookstore has really picked up the literary torch. The reincarnation is still on the Left Bank directly across from Notre Dame. It’s a reincarnation of the original store started by Sylvia Beach, an American with a passion for free thinking and writing. Her store then was famous as a meeting place for Paris’ expatriate literary elite. Ernest Hemingway, who then couldn’t afford to buy anything there, borrowed books from it regularly. James Joyce struggled to find a publisher for Ulysses—until Sylvia Beach published it. George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound also got their English fix at her shop.

Today, the bookstore carries on that literary tradition. This store on Rue de la Bucherie was founded in 1951 by the grandson of American poet Walt Whitman. Struggling writers are given free accommodations in tiny rooms with views of Notre Dame. The upstairs has a few seats, two cots, antique typewriters, and the residence cat perching cozily on a sofa. I make frequent trips to visit the cat and sit with him for a while while reading a book. Used and new books are all downstairs. There’s a green water fountain in front of the bookstore, one of the many in Paris donated by the English philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace. The hooks below the caryatids once hel metal mugsfor drinking the water.